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The cathedral plus the bazaar: Open source and Apple (design) envy

Open source makes great software, but not always the most usable software, which is why hybrid models might be the best way to make open source work.

Walk the halls of any open-source conference and you'll see a large percentage of attendees with ironically un-open-source Apple laptops and iPhones. I've commented on the reasons for this before, but a new thought sprung to mind while reading Matthew Thomas' excellent (and old) "Why free software usability tends to suck."

Open-source advocates like good design as much as anyone, but the open-source development process is often not the best way to achieve it.

Thomas now works for Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, which arguably offers the industry's best Linux experience for personal computers. I got a sneak peek at a future Ubuntu release while at dinner with Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth Wednesday night, and it was gorgeous. Mac freak I may be, but the day Canonical releases that version of Ubuntu is the day my devotion to Apple will be severely tested.

Yes, it's that good.

But it's "that good" because there's a company behind it, a company dedicated to making Linux usable for average consumers. As Thomas writes,

Every contributor to the [open-source] project tries to take part in the interface design, regardless of how little they know about the subject. And once you have more than one designer, you get inconsistency, both in vision and in detail. The quality of an interface design is inversely proportional to the number of designers.

This, coupled with the fact that experienced interface designers tend to be rare in open-source projects and, even when present, "they are not heeded as much as they would be in professional projects precisely because they're dedicated designers and don't have patches to implement their suggestions," as Thomas writes, means that many open-source projects are technically brilliant...and abysmal to look at.

In the short term, proprietary products are generally going to win because they can more tightly control inputs and output and, intriguingly, it is likely that the most proprietary products will win. Why? Because in new markets, control is crucial to delivering a complete experience. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author, notes:

Companies must be integrated across whatever interface drives performance along the dimension that customers value. In an industry's early days, integration typically needs to occur across interfaces that drive raw performance--for example, design and assembly. Once a product's basic performance is more than good enough, competition forces firms to compete on convenience or customization. In these situations, specialist firms emerge and the necessary locus of integration typically shifts to the interface with the customer.

Hence, Apple reigns in smartphones because it's a comparatively new market and Apple can control the complete design of the product. Microsoft and Google, on the other hand, will struggle to compete because they are only delivering software, and depend heavily on the device manufacturer. (It's likely that Apple is also exercising significant influence over AT&T and the other wireless carriers, influence that Apple's competitors likely lack.)

Against this backdrop, I wouldn't expect open source to win in new markets unless a company or other committed organization (e.g., Mozilla with Firefox) is dedicated to making it succeed. But in the long run, it's fair to expect open systems to win. As Mozilla CEO John Lilly articulated to me in response to my post "Is Apple 'open enough' to rule the next decade of mobile?":

In the long term (10 years +), I think that open systems will almost always win, because the systems will be better understood from end to end, there will be more places for individual innovations to happen, more commoditization, and [more need for] the diversity and variety of an open ecosystem.

I agree. The key, however, is learning to tweak open systems in the short term to be competitive, too, and that, I believe, requires a "cathedral+bazaar" approach to open source. It's great, for example, that Red Hat has successfully helped to commoditize the Unix operating system market, but many of us don't want to have to sit around for decades waiting for an industry to tire out, thus ripening for open-source commoditization.

We want to innovate. We want to compete. And we want it now.

For that, you need a little more than open source, it seems, to make products usable. You need control, and control doesn't always jibe well with open-source development. This is one reason that we're seeing the emergence of the Open Core licensing model for open source.

It's why I think we need a lot more such activity if we want open source to dominate new markets, and not merely clean up the scraps of old markets.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.